Covid-19 and the future of global cooperation and science diplomacy

Sir Peter Gluckman
Keynote, Special Session at US-Korea Conference 2020: KOFST- KSEA Special Session on Science Diplomacy


Thank you for the kind opportunity to speak at this meeting of the UKC.

We are living in a world of multiple paradoxes – paradoxes that put international science and science diplomacy into sharp focus.

We face immediate and emerging existential risks — not just Covid-19 but climate change, a destabilised geostrategic landscape, and increasing threat to social cohesion caused by rapid and destabilizing change. And the first paradox is the role of science and technology itself. Technology 150 years ago started the acceleration in fossil fuel use, and science and public health advances fueled the growth in population that contributes to climate change. But the technological change we need to also focus on is the rapid emergence of remarkable new technologies – largely digital and robotic – that change the way we live, interact, and learn, and how the world works. Life science advances and machine human interfaces add further challenges; it would be naive to deny the reality that scientific technological progress and the digital world have had a major role in impacting on social cohesion, national identity, geostrategic strategies, and how societies operate.

Over the past decade, extreme and harder forms of nationalism have risen and in parallel the post-second world war multilateral institutions of the UN a are increasingly sclerotic and less effective. The IPCC represents a scientifically informed system that  emerged to partially fill that gap.

And in this context, we now face Covid-19.

If we explore this pandemic from its earliest days a year ago and project forward over the next year, on one hand we can see the enormous successes of science – from viral identification to vaccination in under 12 months. But on the other hand, we have seen the failures of science to adequately impact on policy in many countries. And even worse, we have already seen vaccine nationalism and vaccines as tools of soft power starting to emerge. In the discussions I lead through my role as chair of the International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA), which hosts the Foreign Ministers Science and Technology Advisors Network (FMSTAN), the discussion is now dominated by these latter concerns. Vaccination politics can put domestic and international considerations in opposition.

Covid-19 – and even more so the existential threats of climate change – has exposed the tensions between strong nationalism and the need for multilateral approaches. Nationalism was rising well before Covid struck and it will continue long after we have eradicated it. But geostrategic tensions are high, and just as science played a critical role behind the scenes in reducing the tensions between contesting powers in the cold war, science can assist in many ways in bridging gulfs between peoples. Indeed, the International Science Council of which I am President-Elect sees its mission in promoting science as a global public good.

Covid-19 has shown that sciences and scientists can rapidly come together across disciplines to promote the public good. However, it has also shown how science can be ignored or misused to advance a political agenda. Even more troubling, it has exposed the rising anti-science agenda and increasing its link to powerful political ideologies. Sadly, our technologies have greatly empowered misinformation, disinformation and the anti-science movement, and we still have yet to understand how best to deal with these issues. Neither Covid nor technology is the cause, but technology has made the challenge of dealing with deep fakes, misinformation and anti-science an almost quixotic challenge. We need both social and technological sciences to come together to find a way to move ahead. After all, science is the only set of processes we have to achieve better understanding of the world around and within us. But it is becoming clearer that we need to find new ways of doing science, such as employing transdisciplinary approaches – this itself is an internal form of diplomacy within science.

Covid-19 has both exposed and accelerated these issues. The question is can we learn from them as we address other existential challenges such as climate change, geostrategic instability, societal dysfunction, poor mental health, and dealing with super rapid technology changes.

The focus of this session is on international scientific cooperation and science diplomacy, but they are not the same thing. The latter is the use of science in diplomacy, and diplomacy is primarily about advancing the national interest. This is increasingly met by recognizing that there is common interest in a set of global issues. But as we have seen in climate change negotiations, direct national interest readily becomes dominant.

From the earliest days of the pandemic, there were concerns that scientific cooperation – at least insofar as it linked to the multilateral landscape – was less than fully functional. This is not surprising. While many might see the WHO as primarily a technical organization, for a long-time it has had a strong political overlay. The economy with arguably the most relevant knowledge, Taiwan, is not even at the table. It is increasingly clear that neither the current raft of international health regulations nor their compliance are adequate, and the current state of the WHO was not well placed to deal with rapidly emerging pandemic risk as primarily a technical matter. Many decisions within and without the WHO were made on non scientific grounds. Can we learn lessons from this, and can science diplomacy act to do better next time? In this context the FMSTAN has been active in suggesting ways ahead.

In general, where the politics have been removed there has been enormous scientific cooperation – over 30,000 scientific papers, although many are by preprint and without peer review. Yet such a massive global effort to share is what we would expect, for science is the only approach we have to gain better and more reliable information about the world around and within us; it is a global process and increasingly so. Indeed, it is gratifying to see how well many low-income countries have used science in their management of the pandemic despite low resource bases. Many have used science much more effectively than higher-income countries. There are many reasons for that, and it is something to reflect upon.

Scientific cooperation will be needed a lot this year as we deal with vaccine hesitancy, misinformation and disinformation. We need to work with each other and share ideas on what works to diminish these issues. INGSA and ISC are both exploring how to assist that cooperation.

As mentioned earlier, international science cooperation is not synonymous with science diplomacy. The latter is the use of science to advance a nation’s interests. That nation’s interest may be appropriately selfish as in the case of science being used to advance economic and security goals. But increasingly it must be global as we work together to deal with global commons issues such as climate change and biodiversity loss. There is tension here, and scientists must work domestically with their diplomats and policy makers to ensure a balance between what otherwise may be competing interests that have so often undermined progress on climate change.

I see great opportunities and challenges ahead for science diplomacy. Technologies such as digital and internet technologies cross borders without significant jurisdictional control. Increasingly, some of these technologies undermine social, national and indeed individual wellbeing. We face a challenge of largely unrestrained private sector technological development having impact on our wellbeing at multiple levels. And we are only at the start of this revolution. Already issues of cybercrime, deep fakes, cybersecurity, undermining of democracy and manipulation of opinion have changed societal conditions enormously. The growth of platform companies and the power of information is changing the geostrategic and indeed diplomatic landscape. Other technologies such as gene editing offer other ways in which jurisdictional control may be subverted. The UN system itself is cumbersome and does not have effective scientific input. Indeed, the multilateral system is threatened. As the virtual world changes us and changes identities, at what point do our identities and loyalties shift from the physical location to the virtual location? These are not issues that affect individual countries, and they require science, technology and especially social science and the humanities to work together.

In the end, this is the challenge of both scientific cooperation and science diplomacy. Scientific technological growth will continue to confront the balance of national and global interest. As the issues of the global commons grow, it is inevitable that geostrategic tension will grow too. International science cooperation has a critical role to play in ameliorating the latter.

But science too has to change. Disciplinary silos need to be replaced by transdisciplinary approaches. The global and indeed national good needs the humanities, social sciences, data, health and natural sciences and technologies to cooperate. Important values are at stake, futures are at stake and science diplomacy of a new kind within ourselves will be needed too. Funding systems, promotion and tenure systems, and indeed incentives within science will need to evolve to meet this new world.

Thank you.